The best situation for a team or athlete in any sport is to exceed expectations. A prime example came in 1999 when my Tennessee Titans team came off three straight 8-8 seasons and went to the Super Bowl. We were the toast of Nashville and the mid-South.
The worst situation is when teams or players do not reach the expectations and are considered underachievers. That makes for a long, frustrating year for the team executives, coaches, players and fan base, followed by severe questioning of the team’s direction.
Last year’s Los Angeles Rams were the epitome of such a scenario as defending Super Bowl champions, who fell to 5-12 in a horrendous season.
This Year’s Sinking Ship
The New York Jets finished last in the AFC East at 7-10 in 2022, losing their last six games. The Jets had a top-five defense but were done in by shaky quarterback play as they missed the playoffs for the 12th straight year, the league’s longest active drought.
Enter Aaron Rodgers via the offseason’s most prominent trade. His arrival skyrocketed expectations, with the playoffs considered likely, and there has even been some Super Bowl talk.
Yet, based on their current offensive turmoil, the Jets are perhaps the top candidate to become this season’s Titanic — the team that sinks amid all the hoopla while general manager Joe Douglas, coach Robert Saleh and Rodgers sit on the hot seat.
Offensive Line Troubles
The offensive line is the primary concern with the season opener about two weeks away. Many projected offensive line starters have dealt with training camp injuries, hurting the offense’s progress under new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. He also faces the pressure of performing better than he did in running the lousy Denver Broncos offense as head coach last season.
The Jets struggled on offense in joint practices with the Carolina Panthers earlier this month. Rodgers was under siege from the Panthers’ edge rushers, and the frustration was evident after the Rodgers-led two-minute drill went three-and-out.
Things didn’t improve in last week’s joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay reportedly sacked Rodgers six times in a 10-play span. There’s been media suggestions the team should sign free agent help, such as OT Jason Peters or OG Dalton Risner.
It’s so unsettled on offense the Jets are starting Rodgers in the preseason finale against the New York Giants. The team anticipates starting guards Laken Tomlinson and Alijah Vera-Tucker will return from injuries.
This will be the first time Rodgers has played in a preseason game since 2018, another sign of concern from the Jets coaches and Rodgers about the state of the offense.
Starting left tackle Duane Brown is now activated from physically unable to perform (shoulder injury) but he turns 38 next week, needs time to get in game shape and can he stay healthy?
Mekhi Becton’s knee problems kept him out of all but one game the past two seasons. However, the 2020 first-round pick is finally healthy. He is coming off a good performance in last week’s preseason game against the Buccaneers and will start this week at right tackle. Second-round pick Joe Tippmann and vet Connor McGovern are battling for the starting center spot.
Rodgers is trying to be patient with his offensive line, but the mercurial quarterback recently commented, “It’s a work in progress” and “There’s jobs up for grabs.”
He added, “At some point, we need to figure things out so we can get guys — at least get a week or two — playing next to each other.”
Rodgers has perhaps the quickest release in the NFL, which can mitigate some of the pass rush’s impact. He also has top-quality skill players, including last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year —WR Garrett Wilson — and other good receivers like Mecole Hardman, and his ex-teammates Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb (if Cobb survives the final cut).
Four-time Pro Bowl RB Dalvin Cook is a recent high-profile signee who begins practicing this week. He’ll rotate with a dynamic talent in second-year man Breece Hall, who is coming off an ACL injury. Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah are a fine pair of tight ends.
If the offensive line stays healthy, holds up in pass protection and opens holes for the backs, the playoffs are a reasonable possibility for the Jets in the challenging AFC. Rodgers will need to play at a high level, and the defense needs to remain stout, too.
But if the offensive line continues to have issues, resulting in Rodgers under consistent pressure from the pass rush, it’s more likely we’ll see another sub-.500 season for the Jets.
This would all happen with Rodgers at the helm. This was the case in his final Packers season as opposed to the elite, 10-time Pro Bowler who led Green Bay to three consecutive 13-win seasons and two NFC title games from 2019-21.
Saleh also put the heat on the offensive line with a rant on “Hard Knocks” after last week’s joint practice.
He said, “Defense, it was awesome to see because that’s our standard. Offense, it was our first opportunity to change the stink that’s been in this organization for a very long time. You can have a Hall of Fame quarterback, two $10 million-plus receivers, a reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, all kinds of skill in the running back room, and none of it matters until the big boys up front change who we are. As coaches and an organization, we can’t want it more than you.”
It’s obvious Saleh and Rodgers want a successful dress rehearsal on Saturday against the aggressive Giants defense to build team confidence before the high-profile opener with the Bills.
That is followed by a rough next seven games: at Dallas, vs. New England and Kansas City, at Denver, vs. Philadelphia, the Giants after a bye week and home against the Chargers.
That’s six 2022 playoff teams in the first eight games. Rodgers, his offensive line and the entire team will have to get it together quickly, or it will be difficult to recover, and the underachievers-of-the-year label likely will reside with the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.